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In the Face of Tragedy, Moral Reasoning Along 'Whodunit' Lines

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, December 8, 2008

When nearly 200 people in India were killed in terrorist attacks late last month, the carnage received saturation media coverage around the globe. When nearly 600 people in Zimbabwe died in a cholera outbreak a week ago, the international response was far more muted.

The Mumbai attacks have raised talk of war between India and Pakistan and triggered a flurry of diplomatic responses. Nothing remotely on the same scale has occurred over the Zimbabwe cholera outbreak, even though many more people have died as a result of the disease compared with the toll in the Mumbai rampage.

Comparing tragedies is problematic, because human lives cannot be reduced to arithmetic. Yet it is unquestionably true that nations tend to focus far more time, money and attention on tragedies caused by human actions than on the tragedies that cause the greatest amount of human suffering or take the greatest toll in terms of lives.

Is this because terrorism poses a greater threat to us than epidemics? Not likely. If you were to make a list of the world's top 10 killers, suicide bombers would be nowhere on the list.

In recent years, a large number of psychological experiments have found that when confronted by tragedy, people fall back on certain mental rules of thumb, or heuristics, to guide their moral reasoning. When a tragedy occurs, we instantly ask who or what caused it. When we find a human hand behind the tragedy -- such as terrorists, in the case of the Mumbai attacks -- something clicks in our minds that makes the tragedy seem worse than if it had been caused by an act of nature, disease or even human apathy.

"When a bad event occurs, this automatically triggers us to seek out whoever is causally responsible," said Fiery Cushman, a cognitive psychologist with Harvard University's interdisciplinary Mind, Brain and Behavior Initiative. "When we assign causal responsibility, it is like, 'Case closed, the detectives can go home.' "

Tragedies, in other words, cause individuals and nations to behave a little like the detectives who populate television murder mystery shows: We spend nearly all our time on the victims of killers and rapists and very little on the victims of car accidents and smoking-related lung cancer.

"We think harms of actions are much worse than harms of omission," said Jonathan Baron, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. "We want to punish those who act and cause harm much more than those who do nothing and cause harm. We have more sympathy for the victims of acts rather than the victims of omission. If you ask how much should victims be compensated, [we feel] victims harmed through actions deserve higher compensation."

The point of this research is not to play down one tragedy or inflate another. Rather, the psychologists said, studying how we reach moral conclusions can help us understand how we respond to human suffering and alert us to pitfalls in our thinking.

Humans appear to have two distinct forms of moral reasoning, Cushman said. When assessing how wrong something is, we focus on intentions -- the detective approach. A person who meant to do harm is seen as worse than a person who did not mean to harm, regardless of how much harm was caused. For instance, someone who tried to kill a child but failed is seen as a worse person than a drunk driver who killed a child in an accident.

When it comes to assessing punishment, however, people pay much more attention to consequences: A drunk driver who spins into a private yard and hits a tree is fined, but if he kills a child who happened to be in the yard, he could go to prison for manslaughter.

Most of the time, moral reasoning based on intention and moral reasoning driven by consequences align perfectly: People with bad intentions often do cause the most harm.

But our mental systems can come into conflict in the case of terrorism and large-scale disasters: Our focus on perpetrators who intentionally cause harm prompts us to minimize the effects of "mundane" tragedies such as floods, famine and disease outbreaks, because those do not have a sinister agent behind them.

But consequential reasoning has its own problems: Most nations respond to small attacks in modest ways and to large attacks in harsh ways. The problem is that attacks that cause a lot of damage may do so because of factors that have nothing to do with the terrorists' intentions. Police officers may foil a plot, or the plot may not unfold as planned -- unexploded bombs were found in Mumbai in the aftermath of the attacks, suggesting that the terrorists meant to cause much greater damage.

If the United States should foil a "dirty bomb" plot aimed at Washington and apprehend a terrorist, what we would have is a person in custody and a fiendish plot. If a president were to suggest going to war to head off similar attacks, many people might think the response was disproportionate because there were no dead bodies on the street. Basing moral judgments on consequences, in other words, can prompt us to underreact when dastardly intentions happen to cause minimal damage.

Cushman said the successive attempts by al-Qaeda to destroy the World Trade Center starkly illustrate the problem: After the 1993 bombing, it would have been difficult for the United States to make a case to go to war in Afghanistan to dismantle the terrorist group's base, even though the 1993 plotters had exactly the same intentions as their more successful counterparts in 2001. If the United States had focused more on the terrorists' intentions rather than on consequences in 1993, it might have reacted more strongly to that attack and potentially headed off the 2001 calamity.

But consequential reasoning can also cause overreaction: The horror of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks prompted the United States to launch two wars, one of which has turned out to have nothing to do with al-Qaeda . By allowing consequences -- the scale of Sept. 11 -- to calibrate our response, many argue, we hurt our interests.

Cushman said the research does not suggest that one form of moral reasoning is superior to the other: Different circumstances may call for different kinds of reasoning. The biggest utility of the research is that it might help people recognize the unconscious ways in which they respond to tragedy.

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